Someone Has to Do It: Reporter Hits Beach For '96 Summer Fads

Having worked the first five months of the year to pay their taxes, America's laboring masses will pack their portable coolers this Memorial Day weekend and begin an annual pilgrimage that signals the sirocco days of summer are upon us.

We will converge on the coastal beaches and the shores of inland lakes, ponds, and watering holes - any body of water with a vaguely native American name beginning in "Winne" or ending in "hoochee."

To find out what's new, phat, au courant, or de rigeur in the sand, this reporter strapped on his inline skates and headed for California's open-air cultural lab and theater of the absurd: Venice Beach.

As gulls cried overhead and waves crashed alongside, what I found on the five-mile-long boardwalk - compared with past years - is more. Of everything. Sunbathers, tourists, joggers, Rollerbladers, weightlifters, surfers, homeless, rappers, jivers. And congestion.

More helicopters churn the air overhead, more Jet Skis churn the water off shore. And to keep things civilized, more police are on patrol.

"There are bigger crowds here every year," says Rolf Svensen, manager of a surfboard rental shop. "I can't understand that because there is more pollution in the water every year as well."

As I roll down the cement bike path, I dodge low-flying kites from the air and newfangled bikes passing on the ground. One cutting-edge bike design holds the rider in standing position, propelled by a hydraulic "Stairmaster."

For skaters, the "new" end of the fashion spectrum this year includes "Rollerballs," a cross between roller skates (which have four wide wheels) and in-line skates (which have four, thin wheels). "Rollerballs" have just two, foot-wide wheels.

"They're better for dancing," says a man calling himself Ev-Ready. His hair is bleached yellow la Chicago Bulls iconoclast Dennis Rodman.

Also new in the gadget category is "Arrow Copter," a $6 plastic missile that, when fired into the wind with a hand-held rubber band, floats slowly back to earth. You read it here, first.

Hot in jewelry are $15 Austrian crystal necklaces. In tattoos, faux birthmarks are in. On T-shirts, more wisecracks from Homer Simpson ("Just Donut," after the Nike "Just Do It" campaign).

Three kinds of bikes are "in": mountain bikes, cruisers (wide fenders, shock absorbers, wide seats), and low-riders. Ten-speeds are "out." Hemp clothing is "in," and shoes made of recycled soda cans and blankets are on the way "out."

All the traffic means a more dominant youth culture that continues to elbow aside older residents and slower-moving visitors. "It's not very therapeutic for those of us in our golden years to come down here and dodge all this," says John Tracy, a Santa Monican who has lived here since 1926.

In the "old" but definitely not "out" category is Venice Beach's inspiring combination of sand, sea, sunsets.

Oleandra McKinnick is lying on a towel near water's edge and clearly in a realm part from Ev-Ready's world. The mother of two takes a moment to read from a beat-up book by philosopher Alan Watts.

"Although the rhythm of the waves beats a kind of time, it has no urgency," she reads. Quoting Mr. Watts she continues: "I know I am listening to a rhythm which has been just the same for millions of years, and it takes me out of a world of relentlessly ticking clocks."

With a couple more crashes of waves, I slowly skate back to the world of ticking clocks and deadlines.

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